By Marc Servos
The River from Monkey Bridge, by Brandon Servos
Sitting prominently at the western promontory of the Singapore River’s entrance is the eye-catching, five-star luxury Fullerton Hotel. It is well-known that this neo-classically designed structure originally operated as the General Post Office after its completion in 1928. Perhaps not known to many, though, is that the Fullerton name was used for Colonial Singapore’s first major fort a century before and located at the same site, known at Battery Point, and built to protect the new and flourishing town. Between the period of Fort Fullerton’s closure and the development of the current building, this exact location housed two other Post Office buildings and facilities for other use.
Shortly after Sir Stamford Raffles’ historic arrival in 1819 and his securing Singapore as a trading post for the British East India Company, he instructed Resident and Commandant William Farquhar to establish artillery batteries along the coast and a fort to protect shipping. A small fortification was built in 1820 at the mouth of the Singapore River at a site known as Rocky Point. But the need of a more extensive fortification to replace the meagre defenses was recognized later that decade, and Fort Fullerton, named after Governor (first to hold this title which replaced that of Resident) Robert Fullerton, was built.
Sources vary on the year of its completion, with 1829 being the most accepted, and by 1830, Fort Fullerton, built of high-quality local bricks and hydraulic lime, consisted of an artillery barracks and an officers’ house. Battery Road provided access between the fort and the economic hub at Commercial Square, currently known as Raffles Place, being renamed that in 1858. Later expansion resulted in the destruction of the Singapore Stone in 1843 to widen the passageway and to provide space for living quarters. A sea wall made of red sandstone filled in with lime mortar was completed the following year. The fort was enlarged three times the original size from 1854 to 1859 with convict labor, extending it from the Singapore River to Johnston’s Pier, after which it was armed with seven 68-pound cannons and an array of howitzers and mortars.
But there were issues to contend with considering its adjacent location to Singapore’s primary commercial district. Despite Fort Fullerton’s purpose to protect commerce, many merchants were not happy with the constant artillery practice and what they saw as prime land used by the military. More relevant concerns were that the fort would draw enemy fire on this commercial area in the event of an attack and possibly leading to the destruction of the town of Singapore. A committee that convened not long after the completion of the 1850’s expansion eventually concluded that Fort Fullerton was ineffective and naval defense would be more effective. Demolition of the facilities was carried out in 1873, during the period when construction of several fortifications was underway at Pulau Blakang Mati, presentday Sentosa, and its adjacent locales. Other existing installations had already been in operation, most notably Fort Canning.
Practical use of this site almost immediately continued. In 1874, the Post Office relocated from across the Singapore River to a bungalow located on the site of the fort. This was demolished in 1882 with the construction of a new Post Office, the latter existing until 1922. The Singapore Volunteer Artillery’s headquarters, Drill Hall, was built in 1891 at the site of the previous Post Office, and they often conducted artillery firing drills after business hours until moving their headquarters in 1908 to Beach Road. Also located at the former site of Fort Fullerton included the exclusively all- European, all-male Singapore Club, the Chamber of Commerce and Singapore Exchange, along with the construction of new buildings.
The present building opened as a Post Office six years after the previous one was razed. Named the Fullerton Building, it also housed tenants of the previous location, the Singapore Club and the Chamber of Commerce, and ten governmental departments. The British used it as a makeshift hospital during the Japanese invasion in 1942, and it subsequently housed the Japanese military administration headquarters during the Occupation. The building reverted to its pre-war use in 1945.
The Fullerton Building closed in 1996 to undergo extensive renovation, and the 400-room Fullerton Hotel opened in December 2000. It was officially gazetted as a National Monument by the National Heritage Board in December 2015.
The Singapore Stone, displayed at the National Museum of Singapore, is a remaining fragment of a larger slab and its namesake, which was discovered at the mouth of the Singapore River by laborers while clearing trees in June 1819. The original intact slab was made of sandstone and measured approximately three meters wide by three meters long and bore an inscription believed to be either Old Javanese or Sanskrit. It is thought to have existed at least since the 13th century and possibly as far back as the 10th century. These inscriptions have not been deciphered to this date, despite many attempts, including by Raffles himself.
The original Singapore Stone was blown up in 1843 on the orders of acting Settlement Engineer, Captain D.H. Stevenson, to provide expansion of Fort Fullerton. Following this, Lieutenant-Colonel James Low, who had opposed the destruction, collected fragments with letters inscribed which were later sent to the Royal Asiatic Society’s museum in Calcutta, now known at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. One fragment was returned to Singapore in 1918, and it was designated as one of the 11 national treasures by the National Museum in 2006 and by the National Heritage Board as one of the top 12 collections held in Singapore’s museums.